It’s hard to believe that five years ago I took the plunge and married my best friend — a decision that would change my life forever. Dave wasn’t just my best friend though; he was a newly commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps. We got married three weeks after our engagement, on a Friday afternoon, in a courthouse with only seven family members and a judge in attendance. I should have known right then that I was in for a wild ride, but I was clueless. Reflecting on our wedding day, I was naive to what being a military family truly entailed and what it meant to raise kids in this lifestyle. Four moves, two dogs, and two kids later, I’ve definitely learned a few things.
1. How normal the abnormal would become. When I told my family and friends that I was getting married at the courthouse, quitting my job, and moving away, they all thought I was crazy! Some even shamed me about it. However, once I left home and joined the military community, I quickly learned that just about everyone I met had done the same thing and that our family circumstances were actually quite “normal” after all.
Throughout the years, though, I’ve come to realize that almost every aspect of our life is different from those not in the military. While my friends and family have learned to understand and accept it, they still think it’s crazy to move cross country twice in a year, to never know what time your husband will be home, and to generally not be able to make any plans in advance…ever. Call up your military friends, though, and they’ll laugh a little and say, “Me too…here’s some wine.”
2. That we’d quickly make friends, who would become family. When you are miles away from your immediate families and all living this crazy, unpredictable life, you find yourself easily bonding with complete strangers. It also helps that other military families just “get it.”
With every move, we quickly made friends who have become our lifeline. We babysit, pet-sit, do home repairs, listen to each other’s struggles, and celebrate one another’s accomplishments — often having only known each other for a few months. We’ve spent most holidays in the past five years with our military family, because schedules often don’t allow us time to travel. Our kids grow up more like siblings than friends, and they too learn the importance of making friends quickly at each new duty station.
3. How incredible a homecoming would be. We’ve all seen the movies and shows where a service member returns home and runs into the arms of a wife/husband/partner. The real thing is often far less perfect, yet more amazing than any movie depiction. Whether you’ve been separated for a few days, few weeks, or few months, the feeling of having your family reunited and under the same roof is truly indescribable.
During my husband’s most recent deployment, our youngest son was born. This meant that our homecoming was even more special because they would finally meet. This was a moment I had waited for and dreamed about for a year (since finding out I was pregnant). I picked out the perfect outfits for our boys and myself. My friend, who is a photographer, would be there to capture the moment. Then, the month of homecoming, we had to evacuate for a hurricane. We were able to return home with four days to spare, but the hurricane resulted in a lot of changes to the time and location of where we would be reunited with Dave. Finally the day was here. It was chaotic, hot, and humid. There was a diaper blow out (in the perfect homecoming outfit), dehydration, and more schedule changes. At the end of it all, our family was reunited — sweaty and tired, in the middle of an unglamorous parking lot…nothing like I had imagined. All that mattered that day, though, was that we were together, for the first time as a family of four.
4. The pride we have in our country and our military. Before marrying a Marine, I wasn’t the most patriotic person. However, witnessing first-hand how much our service members and their families sacrifice on a daily basis really changed my perspective. I am honored to call these men and women my friends, because I see how selfless they are and the pride they have in what they do. They put themselves in danger and work long, hard hours. They miss what to most are everyday happenings like dinners, t-ball practices, and dance recitals. They miss birthdays, anniversaries, and their children’s births. They do this all in the name of protecting our country and the freedoms the rest of us get to enjoy. It gives me great pride to be part of such a selfless community of people.
5. What it’s like to move multiple times in a year. My husband has been in the military for five years, in which we have moved four times. Two of those moves have been cross country, just seven months apart and with a baby. My son had touched the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean, and had been to 25 states all before his first birthday! Crazy right? Not so crazy to us. I knew going into this that we’d move “a lot,” but I didn’t really think about what that would mean and what it would look like with kids, plus dogs in tow.
What I’ve learned, is that when you have to do something (like move your life from the East Coast to the West and back), you just have to figure out how to get it done. We’ve become expert packers, unpackers, and organizers. We’ve found homes via the internet and had friends scout them out for us. We’ve also developed a foolproof system for the car — who sits where, how to get two dogs walked, a baby nursed and changed efficiently at every rest stop, how to keep a toddler entertained, what has to come in and out of the hotels each night, and so on. Twelve hour road trips back “home” to the northeast are a breeze now that our system has been perfected.
6. How strong our family and relationships are. To survive the unpredictability, stress, and overall craziness that is this lifestyle, you need to be strong (some days are easier than others) and so do your relationships. I don’t think I knew the strength of the bond with my husband, until we had gotten deep into this life. There is no room for doubting each other, petty arguments or drama. Our relationship is in no way perfect, nor is it glamorous. But it is strong enough to survive months apart, stressful events, solo parenting, and moves. Military kids amaze me even more. I watch my friend’s kids move to yet another town and school, make friends quickly, adjust to their new environment and deal with one parent being far away. I look at my oldest son, only two years old, and see that he is already learning to be strong in this life. Since the day he was born, he’s been feisty and easily riled up. Put him in a high stress situation, though, and he is the calmest one there. He is home with me every day, yet somehow has developed social skills and is comfortable with everyone he meets. I don’t worry about him moving schools when he’s older because he makes friends everywhere he goes.
7. How much we’d love it. While our life is crazy, unique, and often stressful, my husband and I both love it and wouldn’t change a thing. We have the opportunity to live all over the country, make friends in new places, and see and do things we never would have done if it weren’t for the Marine Corps. It is so great to know that our children will also get these experiences. Both my husband and I grew up living in only one home our entire childhood, surrounded by our extended families. While this was great, moving around the country and being exposed to many different cultures, has made us realize just how sheltered our lives were. Our country is vast, amazing, and diverse, and we are better people for getting to experience that.
Jackie is a mother of two and military wife. Originally from New York, she and her family now enjoy the slower paced living of the South, thanks to military relocation. She taught in elementary schools throughout the country for five years before taking a hiatus to raise her two little ones.
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Photos provided by author.